The ongoing trust case of Tom Benson, the billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans whose competency to run his affairs was challenged, passed through a critical phase Friday. Benson, aged 87, was declared by Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese to be fit for management of his business.
In December of last year, Benson excluded his daughter Renee Benson, along with his grandchildren Rita Benson and Ryan LeBlanc, from ownership positions of the teams and his car dealerships upon his death. In response, Renee and her children filed suit in New Orleans for control of Benson's various enterprises, claiming the patriarch was no longer mentally capable of overseeing his nearly $2 billion empire. The one-time heirs also have alleged undue influence by Benson's 67-year-old wife Gayle, who is now designated to assume her husband's leadership role in the event of his death.
Using the expert testimony of three medical professionals, Reese had this to say of Benson's condition:
The court sat across the desk from the defendant, looked into his eyes, listened carefully to his responses, and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present. The evidence presented at the hearing corroborated this initial impression.
Judge Reese's ruling on Benson's mental fitness marks a key juncture in the struggle for control of not only the Saints and Pelicans franchises, but also car dealerships and banks from Louisiana to Texas. And while Benson proved to the Orleans court that he was of sufficiently sound mind to make his own business decisions, litigation will continue with respect to the trust assets he's attempting to shift away from his children.
Hundreds of millions in team stock as well as commercial properties are at stake, and Benson's ability to simply exchange those for promissory notes is in serious doubt - he's been replaced as trustee of the Texas holdings, and the Louisiana trustee of Saints and Pelicans shares isn't agreeing to his wishes, with both instances triggering legal gridlock. So while Benson cleared a major hurdle in proving himself competent to manage his business the way he sees fit, all those lucrative holdings he hopes to move away from his children will remain the focus of contentious litigation for some time to come.